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Socially anxious? Try these small talk tips



Kermit sitting on a stump with large stone lizard

Here’s one thing I have never heard: “I love small talk.”


Although I’m sure those people exist, the more typical refrain sounds like:

“I hate small talk.”

“Chitchat is such a waste of time.”

“Networking is so awkward.”

“You know there’s nothing to say when someone brings up traffic.”



Okay, yes. Small talk can feel brutal.


And also, those moments of chitchat can serve as the seeds to a more meaningful interaction. Small talk can even help us feel less isolated or lonely by providing a sense of connectedness to others. It’s a pretty important element of being human.


But...anxiety is a natural companion during these social exchanges. We feel anxious because we are afraid of looking foolish and we want to get those moments “right”. Our bodies get physically tense because we fear that we’ll get a negative reaction from the other person. Sometimes even our brain will freeze or mouth dry up and there’s just nothing there.


So it’s common to just avoid the awkward small talk. Please don’t.


Small talk is helpful. In most cultures, it serves as a social lubricant, assisting us to develop rapport and set the stage for deeper interactions, for collaboration, and even for friendship. Small talk can actually increase our comfort with other people if we stick with it and learn how to do it.


So let’s get you more comfortable with the dreaded chit chat.


We’ll explore 3 things here:

  1. Mindset shifts to reduce anxiety in moments of making small talk

  2. Conversation topics to have in your pocket

  3. Interaction tips that are basic but powerful



1. Mindset shifts for you to make about small talk


--> Adjust your expectations of the interaction.

You will not feel as comfortable interacting with new people, occasional coworkers or loose acquaintances as you do when you're hanging out with a friend. Your body senses the lack of familiarity with lesser known folks and sends signals to your brain to stay on alert:

Safety is not guaranteed here…tread carefully.


Accept that small talk will feel awkward and remind yourself that this is normal. Validating the way you feel is a first step towards calming your nerves.



--> View interactions with people as a way to learn.

This approach can take some pressure off of your performance. Decide that you are there to absorb rather than to be on display. Consider what you might learn:


  • You can learn something about the person to build upon in the conversation or in future interactions.

  • You can learn something new, helpful, or interesting.

  • You can learn about yourself.


--> Focus on the process of growing your comfort with chitchat.

If you do want to increase your skill and comfort, then each small talk moment is an opportunity to work on it. Take a self-development stance and affirm for yourself:

I can use this moment as a way to practice interacting instead of reinforcing that I hate it and can't do it.

I can train myself to regulate my body with my breathing when I notice it tense up.

I can practice open body language and maintaining eye contact even when it’s uncomfortable.



2. Conversation topics to have in your pocket


If small talk anxiety makes you struggle thinking of things on the spot to talk about, you can pull from the below categories. When you feel prepared, it will reduce worry and fear about it going well. Because I love an acronym, and because acronyms help you remember things…


You can navigate small talk with CHAPS.


C - Current moment or current events

H - Holidays

A - Advice

P - Personal details

S - Shared interests


C - Current moment or current events.

With this category, you can ask questions or just make observations. Both will open the door to interaction.


Current moments - Start with what strikes you as most obvious at the current moment with that person.

“So how do you know [the party host]?”

“Gosh it’s dead around here today. Where is everyone?”

“Have you lived here long? I’m in search of a great Mexican food restaurant and I haven’t found it just yet.”

"So what made you interested in coming to this [event/store/class]?


Current events - this includes any big news story happening in your local area, nationally, or around the world. Given how polarized society can be right now, for small talk it’s best to stick to topics that are fairly neutral like:

  • Musicians, actors, celebrities, athletes trending in the news

  • Currently popular movies or shows

  • Books or podcasts that are in the news

  • Local or well-known sports teams or competitions coming up


If you don't have much to say in any of these categories, it's okay. Most people do, so these are still useful conversation starters that can easily grow.


For example. I’m not much into sports, but sometimes I’ll say:

“So, are you following any sports lately?”

  • If they say yes, I ask about their favorite teams or athletes and then just listen and ask follow-up questions. Typically they will share some detail that I can interact with.

  • If they say no, I can say, "Yeah, me neither but growing up in Texas, football was king. What about where you grew up?"


And then we move on to talking about growing up topics if the sports angle falls flat.



H – Holidays

This category includes calendar holidays, trips/vacations, and weekends.

  • Ask or comment about recent or upcoming holidays and any traditions or plans they or you might have.

  • Ask or share about experiences on trips & vacations or something either of you might have planned for the near future.

  • Ask or talk about the weekend past or ahead and the things either of you did or plans you have. Usually there will be something to expand on and chat further about.



A - Advice, opinion or help

People generally like to be helpful, so if you ask for advice or an opinion on something, they will often be happy to engage. Just think about how many comments there are when someone posts on social media asking for an opinion. Have some easy topics in mind, or just ask something that you’ve truly been wondering about.

  • What are your favorite places to eat around here?

  • What route do you normally take when you drive to [specific location].

  • Have you been to a show at [local venue]? What’s it like?

  • You seem really informed about [topic]. Where do you recommend starting if I want to learn about it too?

  • Have you ever used a gas lawn mower? I’m wondering how well they work.


In your neighborhood or in the workplace, asking someone for guidance on a particular project can be a bridge builder and break the ice for conversation between you. Most folks are pleased to share their knowledge.



P - Personal details about them

Generally, people like to share about themselves and they enjoy having someone who will listen.


Ask about how they spend time, their interests, their likes/dislikes. This is a helpful category if you're interacting with someone at a social event where you need to pass a bit of time together. And aside from making conversation, you may find out whether you have things in common with them for a deeper connection in the future.


How do you like spending your free time?

What kind of work have you done? How did you choose that?

Where did you grow up? How did you end up living here?

What kind of [shows/music/sports/online content] are you into lately?

What's going well in your world right now?


Give a personal compliment

If it feels too forward to ask a question, one of the easiest ice breakers is to give a compliment. Notice something about the person or their things that you like and compliment them. When you say something nice, it will soften any nervous energy between you and the other person, opening the door for more.


I like your shirt! I've been trying to find something like that.

That’s a beautiful tattoo. I'd love to hear about its meaning.

Where did you get those shoes? They're really great!



S - Shared interests

Once you learn that someone likes the same musician or YouTuber or video game or sport as you, it's a natural thing to talk further about.


What is their favorite or least favorite aspect of [shared interest]?

How did they get into [shared interest]?

What would they love to see or do next related to [shared interest]?


Visual cues - Depending on the environment, you can pay attention to clothes & accessories they are wearing, their possessions, the car they drive, etc. to look for common tastes or intersts.

Shared experience - If you are at an affinity group of some kind, you already share a common interest, so build upon that.


How did you get interested in this? How did you hear about this group/class? How long have you been doing this [shared experience]?


Pets - in America 2/3 of people currently have a pet. That doesn't even cover the amount of people who've ever owned a pet. Pets are a pretty easy and neutral topic to ask about and find commonality with. Even if you're just asking about their experience with whatever their pet history has been.



3. Interaction tips that are basic but powerful


Slow your breathing – It really does help.

Calmer breath = calmer body = calmer mind. When you are calmer, the awkwardness of interactions calms down too.


Make eye contact – this can be difficult at first, but work at making and sustaining eye contact and looking others in the face. If it’s easier, you can look at their forehead just above their eyes. Eye contact helps us feel connected to people and gives us a sense that the other person is trustworthy.


Smile – Smiles go a long way. Even if you aren’t ready to start talking to someone yet, just smile and nod your head. The other person will see you as a friendly and open person. And smiling is a mild physical relaxant for you too!


Take the first step – speak first to break the ice. If you take control, it can help reduce your anxiety about the interaction.


Ask a question or share about yourself – either of these approaches are helpful to get the conversation going. Many folks find asking a question to be the least vulnerable approach.


Use “open-ended” questions - try to avoid questions that can be answered with a yes/no response or a single word. Those are harder to follow-up on. All of the examples in this article have been open-ended.


Get their name – if the setting is appropriate, share your name and then ask for theirs. Try to repeat it naturally a few times during the conversation to increase the connection vibe.


Approach the loner - In a group setting, approach the person who is by themselves. They'll likely be grateful for your presence and this will downshift any nervous energy that both of you have.


Look for "conversation branches" – branches are ways to further the conversation from the initial thing a person shares. Most statements have multiple branches you can follow. The following example shows you 4 different response ideas to branch the conversation from the initial statement. Notice the underlined keywords that come from the original statement.


"Last Spring I took a road trip and visited 8 different states, it was an amazing time!"


1."Aw man, that’s awesome…last Spring I was nursing a broken foot and feeling cabin fever." (share about self)


2."Oh wow, I’ve never done a road trip – how did you decide where to go?" (ask follow-up question)


3."Geez, 8 states! I’ve been to just 3 in my whole life. Where did you go?" (share + ask follow-up)


4. "Yeah, I bet that was an amazing time! The most amazing thing I’ve done is probably climbing Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii. It’s no US road trip, but it was awesome. Have you ever been abroad?" (share + offer new topic)



Your takeaways about reducing small talk anxiety:


In nearly all cultures, small talk serves as an important and useful tool of social interaction and relationship-building.


You can reduce anxiety about making small talk with:


Mindset shifts 

--> Adjust your expectations of the interaction.

--> View interactions with people as a way to learn.

--> Focus on the process of growing your comfort with chitchat.


Conversation topics with the acronym CHAPS.

C - Current moment or current events

H - Holidays

A - Advice

P - Personal details

S - Shared interests


Interaction tips that are basic but powerful

-Slow your breathing

-Make eye contact

-Smile

-Take the first step

-Ask a question or share about yourself

-Use “open-ended” questions

-Get their name

-Approach the loner

-Look for "conversation branches"



Let's not pretend. You probably won't ever love small talk. You don't need to.


Chitchat moments can still serve you well even if you feel nervous or awkward at times. Which ideas will you try out to see what works for you?


 

Photo credit in order of appearance: Hans and Christine Sponchia from Pixabay 

 

If high anxiety and other strong emotions are limiting your ability to manage interactions and daily life the way you'd like, take a look at my 8-week online course on managing intense emotions to see if it's a fit for you.


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